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Ion engine enters space race

Discussion in 'General Discussions and Lounge' started by gkd_uk, Apr 17, 2008.

  1. gkd_uk

    gkd_uk Moderator Moderator Webmaster

    Engineer Neil Wallace peers into a huge vacuum chamber designed to replicate - as far as possible - the conditions of space.

    Cryogenic pumps can be heard in the background, whistling away like tiny steam engines.

    Using helium gas as a coolant, they can bring the temperature in the vacuum chamber down to an incredibly chilly 20 Kelvin (-253C). The pressure, meanwhile, can drop to a millionth of an atmosphere.

    This laboratory in a leafy part of Hampshire is where defence and security firm Qinetiq develops and tests its ion engines - a technology that will take spacecraft to the planets, powered by the Sun.

    Ion engines are an "electric propulsion system". They make use of the fact that a current flowing across a magnetic field creates an electric field directed sideways to the current.

    This is used to accelerate a beam of ions (charged atoms) of xenon away from the spacecraft, thereby providing thrust.

    Neil Wallace, technical lead of the electrical propulsion team at Qinetiq, winds open the door of the testing chamber.

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